Essay

I Was a Mortuary Worker in Iraq: A Marine on What Remains After War

By | May 1, 2012

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Jessica Goodell served in the Marine Corps’ first dedicated mortuary affairs unit. The platoon, deployed to Iraq in 2004, was tasked with recovering and processing the remains of the fallen, many of whom were killed by Improvised Explosive Devices. Their grim work occasionally required scooping up human remains and depositing them into body bags. Once home, she struggled with finding meaning and structure in her life. A turning point occurred when taking a community college course titled “American Institutions.” Jess and the instructor for that course, John Hearn, co-authored her story in Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq. In the following essay, Hearn’s words are italicized.

 

“We need to understand how much of our lives is lived in and through institutions, and how better institutions are essential if we are to lead better lives. In surveying our present institutions we need to discern what is healthy in them and what needs to be altered, particularly where we have begun to destroy the nonrenewable natural and nearly nonrenewable human resources upon which all our institutions depend.”

– Robert N. Bellah, et. al., The Good Society 

 

We would inventory everything. Everyone had a copy of The Rules of Engagement in their left breast pocket. Some would have knives or earplugs, food, a spoon. Pens. Rolled up pieces of paper, a scribbled reminder to ask their mother to send Skin So Soft to keep the sand fleas away, a scrunched-up wrapper, trash that wasn’t thrown away, that didn’t become litter, that would now become part of a family’s lasting memories of a son, husband, brother, father, hero. There were pictures. A man and his wife and daughter. A farmhouse and barn in Iowa. Many were the pictures teenagers would carry back home. A high school student with his football teammates. A young man in a sleeveless t-shirt leaning against a 1983 Camaro. A letter in which a Marine tells his widow that he is now dead, but that he loves her still, and he wants her to give their daughter a kiss from him. Some items were uncommon, like the sonogram of a fetus. Some were not uncommon enough, like a suicide note.

We felt privileged to do what we could for the families of the dead, yet the work took its toll. A couple of our unit’s members left the platoon voluntarily, while another was asked to leave. It was difficult to eat and sleep, and we all began to feel and hear what we believed were the souls of the dead.

When our four years were up, some of us reenlisted, some of us did not. The former seemed to fare better than the latter. Of those who came back to civilian life, one spent two and half of his first three years home in jail; another, to this day, has been unable to hold a job; one shot at neighborhood kids from his apartment window, telling police afterwards that he feared they were about to attack his family; another could not leave her small apartment for months; still another, in a hospital after a failed suicide attempt, texted me this message: “I have $2,000 in the bank. Let’s meet in NYC and go out with a bang.”

After the Marines, I moved from California to St. Louis to Seattle to Tucson to New York and back to Tucson, while trying unsuccessfully to leave an unhealthy relationship with a fellow former Marine. I looked for jobs as a security guard, a machine parts clerk, a waitress, a nail technician and a dog groomer. I was unable to find a place where I felt I belonged, a situation in which I was needed and where I needed to be, or a sense of control over my shrinking world. I discovered that many of my taken-for-granted assumptions about life and death, war and peace, justice and forgiveness, right and wrong, did not seem to apply to the world as clearly as they once had. The tight bonds that defined life in Iraq were loose and frayed back in the States; in fact, well-established patterns of interaction were difficult to discern, as the emphasis on self-sacrifice was replaced with one on self-fulfillment.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I noticed how we were always buying things, and then buying more. New cars and then new stereo systems for them, and then new wheels, and then newer, more powerful stereo systems. Clothes. Jewelry. Cell phones that would soon be replaced with fancier ones. Flat screen televisions that would be replaced with larger ones.

Everyone was busy. Too busy to meet, to have dinner, to carry on an actual conversation. Everything moved fast. Strangers became best friends—“brothers”—or they became lovers—“soul mates”—in an instant. Relationships and marriages ended overnight. Jobs were lost, families were broken, plans were changed and futures were canceled in the blink of an eye.

People seemed self-centered and relationships felt superficial. Favors were asked but seldom returned; everyone wished to talk and no one wanted to listen; plans were kept on hold until the last minute in the hope that something better came up; friends wouldn’t show up or couldn’t be bothered.

For a while I knew what it was like to have friends who would give their life to protect mine. Back home, I couldn’t be sure that one would show up to an agreed-upon lunch date or actually meet me at the library as we had planned. And instead of solidarity, the ubiquitous “support our troops” decals and token “thank you for your service” declarations contributed to a greater sense of isolation and misunderstanding.

Everyday life had the feel of a shopping mall, on Black Friday, and I was there alone, among total strangers, wandering around or, at most, transacting business. The Mall of America. It would be two years before I made a connection between this reality and President Bush’s post-9/11 exhortation that we respond to terrorism by going shopping.

All of this—the rampant consumption, the materialism, the self-centeredness—the Corps had purged from us; then we were dropped back into the middle of it all. The experiences of war, of combat and death, left us jittery in public places, jumpy at the sound of fire crackers, sleepless at night, but it was this fundamental shift in what we saw as important, in who we were, in how we lived, in the bonds that connected us, or didn’t, that created deeper problems in adjusting back to our old lives.

To say that this set of profound changes created a sense of confusion is to minimize our sense of the term “confusion.” We did get disoriented with regard to time and, certainly, identity, but it wasn’t just all in our minds. The disorder was also in our lives, in our interactions, our relationships, as well as in their absence. As we were soon to learn, the confusion was in the very ground beneath our feet that would give way like loose sand whenever we tried to propel ourselves forward, trying to get back to a source of social gravity, where life had meaning and our interactions had structure.

Not only was I floating aimlessly in the lazy institutional currents of life back home, but my beliefs about America’s role in the world were also being tested. I had thought we were in Iraq to fulfill our moral obligation to promote freedom and democracy, but I had seen little evidence of that over there. I had thought God was on our side, but I couldn’t feel his support in the MA bunker at Camp TQ. Like every Marine I knew, I went to Iraq to help the Iraqi people, but eight months later I left knowing I had not.

 

I WAS LOST WHEN, IN 2006, at the last possible moment, I enrolled as a student at a local community college. The coursework kept me busy, which was good. One course in particular helped to shift my perspective in a way that allowed me to see that there may be a way back to an involved, meaningful life, one that required understanding our society less through its national myths and more through the nature of its social institutions.

I teach at a small, rural community college tucked into the southwestern corner of New York State. We are located in a town of 30,000, a virtual island within a 50-mile radius of farmland and villages. In 2009 the county’s median household income was approximately $38,000. For several years now, a growing proportion of my students have been veterans of our Middle Eastern wars. In a course I taught last summer, five of the twenty students were vets. I’m getting better at identifying them. It’s not their age that gives them away. Some make it easy for me by carrying their books and other belongings in a military-issued MOLLE pack; their hair, if they are male, may be shorter than the norm, or it is, if they were Marines, still high and tight; several address me as “sir”; they often emblazon a forearm with a colorful emblem of the unit they served in, or a bicep with a single word, like “RAGE”; some disappear after a week or two and, like ghosts, reappear without explanation; or they attend every class, often sitting in the back of the classroom, but when I catch their eyes, I can see that they are not there at all.

In the fall of 2006, unable then to detect the student-veteran, I was nevertheless aware of a young woman in one of my classes who did stand out. She was slightly older and much thinner than her classmates. She never missed a class or arrived late. While many of her fellow students had a tendency to slouch down into their plastic chairs or lean forward to rest their arms on the table before them, she sat with a perfectly straight spine. She didn’t whisper to classmates, play with her phone or appear disinterested. And she did not say a single word throughout the semester.

The course, titled “American Institutions,” examined the nature of social institutions, focusing on our own. We discussed our political system, including the arguments that it is controlled by an unelected elite who make what C. Wright Mills called “history-making” decisions, such as the decision to participate in or to start a war …

I had fought in a war but hadn’t really given much thought to who it was that made the decision that there would be one, or why they had so decided. I knew that President Bush had said the war had been willed by God, but the state of the human remains we scooped up with our hands told me otherwise. I knew too that we had invaded Iraq because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was willing to use them against us, but those weapons were never found. Or we were going there to effect regime change, but … Or to liberate the Iraqi people, but … Or to establish a democratic oasis in the Muslim Middle East, but …

We talked about our globalizing economic system, with its steep stratification hierarchy and its shrinking middle class …

I grew up in a somewhat insulated middle class enclave, on a lake, outside of Jamestown, New York. Issues of inequality and social justice emerged during my military service (where a disproportionate number of my fellow Marines were from the ranks of the growing lower classes, and when we deployed to economically underdeveloped Iraq) and at the community college (attended by very few of my high school classmates), but it took a while before I saw the reality of inequality and the value of social justice clearly enough to connect them to my own experiences. I had never asked myself how it is that so few are able to consume so much of the world’s scarce resources.

We discussed the failure of our educational institution to provide the young with the knowledge and skills required to locate oneself in society and one’s society in history, or to engender reflection on what it means to live the good life in the Good Society …

A Marine recruiter suddenly appeared in my high school classroom and within days I had enlisted …

We discussed religion: the Durkheimian belief in its functionality—its contribution to group solidarity and meaning, and the Marxist argument that it is an opiate that undermines collective political action, as well as the loosening grip of the major churches, the depersonalization of the mega-churches and the related diminishment of a shared conception of the Good Society.

 

IN THE MORTUARY AFFAIRS bunker, we could feel and hear the souls of the dead. They emerged at night and hovered above us, pressed down upon us, pushed us away from their favorite resting spots, watched us through the eyes of severed heads. That there was an afterlife was as clear to us as Iraq’s bright yellow sun, but what it entailed and who its inhabitants were and how one gained admission were more of a mystery than ever. There was a chapel on the base which I visited every now and then, but I would leave still unable to explain what was going on around me, and no more comforted than when I entered. One day a fellow platoon member handed an Iraqi man two black plastic bags. One contained the remains of the man’s wife; the other the remains of his four-year old daughter. My chapel visits did not help me to make sense of this or the many other atrocities surrounding me.

Two years later, sleeping on my father’s couch, unable to function, I sought advice from the youth pastor at our church. At his suggestion, I attended services regularly and donated time to the congregation’s children and elderly, but it too wasn’t enough to provide me with the grounding I sought or the conviction in the goodness of what we were doing, either in Iraq or here at home.

A hundred years after Emile Durkheim pronounced that the old gods had died and new ones had not yet arisen, I still could not find one.

We discussed war as an extension of politics and read Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” …

I had thought Al Qaeda hated us only because we were free, a concept they found repugnant, as the president and his spokespersons told us, but here Bin Laden was making the case that we attacked Muslims in Somalia and in occupied Palestine, that we shored up oppressive dictators in one Muslim country after another, that we did not adequately compensate them for—or we stole!—their oil, that we starved their children through the implementation of unjust sanctions, and on and on …

We discussed the interdependence of our social institutions …

I was beginning to feel the reality of our social institutions and to see how our economy and polity and our educational, religious and family systems worked together to make us, individually and collectively, who we are. If I detected a crack in one institution, a gap between its ideals and actual functioning, I could trace that fissure into and through the other institutions.

Marx said that the critique of society begins with a critique of religion. For me, it began with a critique of war. Initially an unarticulated discomfort with roots in my experiences fighting a war, it became a more informed analysis based upon readings that allowed me to connect my war to the structure of our society and world.

I concluded that too many of the myths surrounding war, more than a few of which are religious in nature, are malignant, and too few of those embracing life are robust enough to provide substantive meaning.

We discussed the nature of social institutions …

That course, titled “American Institutions,” invited students to think about the nature of our political system and economy and educational system and family system as well as our military, and to understand how we form them and how they form us, and how, if we choose, we can change them, and reinvigorate them with the ideals and virtues they long-ago held.

I graduated at the end of that semester with a clearer understanding of how a goal larger than the self—a possible antidote to life in modern society—must contain a concept of the common good that is embedded in our shared institutions. I came to see that individuals can fulfill themselves only within a community that actively maintains the norms of honor and discipline and sacrifice and democratic participation, and that, in a globalizing world, the goals of peace and justice and equality of opportunity must extend to all of humanity.

Jessica had been a silent student that semester, uttering not one word in class. It was through her written work that I understood that she was listening and reading and thinking. The semester ended and I did not see her for a year or so, until she one day appeared at my office door. During our chat she mentioned that she was behind schedule academically because she had served four years in the Marines. As our conversation wound down, I invited her to drop by again when she was next on campus. “Next time,” she asked, “can we talk about forgiveness?”

When I transferred to a four-year school I founded a group for veterans. Together we tried to make sense of what we had done and were doing. Beneath our shared experiences was an unspoken understanding that we hoped to nudge ourselves and the college community toward a conversation about social justice. After graduation I moved to Boston and joined its Veterans for Peace chapter. In what is, for many, the birthplace of American democracy, we worked to remind our city and nation of its historic ideals, while we sought repentance through helping dislocated Iraqi families settle into the area. Today I see the Occupy Wall Street movement as an attempt, however unorganized, to nationalize the efforts to revitalize our institutions, to realign their goals with America’s true ideals, to infuse the process of collective meaning-making with democracy, and to do so in a more global context.

This is how I am integrating my past with my present, myself with my country, my life with my ideals, my present with the future, my experiences with hope.

Jessica is a PhD candidate in the counseling program at the University of Buffalo. John Hearn teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. This essay contains passages from the authors’ book, Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq (Casemate Publishers, 2011).

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